‘Philly D.A.’ Is A Fascinating Profile Of Progressive Politics In Action [Sundance Review]
February 3, 2021
What does dismantling the American carceral state look like? How can meaningful and radical police reform actually be enacted? After years of tireless work by activists, acting upon decades of injustice against the poor and People of Color, these issues of now part of mainstream political platforms. On a federal level, President Joe Biden’s recent executive order to phase out the use of private, for-profit prisons is a clear indication of how far things have come….and how much further they need to go. The pathway to the prison system starts all the way down at the municipal level where district attorneys wield enormous power in setting prosecutorial standards. These parameters have generally followed a trend toward the draconian, driven by “tough on crime” rhetoric and career advancement tied to driving up prosecution numbers. However, Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner isn’t looking at the governor’s seat and doesn’t have much regard for the status quo. As profiled in the admirably complex and captivating eight-part series “Philly D.A.” — with two episodes premiering at Sundance and made available to press — Krasner is what change looks like, and that’s what makes him so terrifying to the establishment.
After spending 30 years as a public defender and civil rights attorney, often fighting against the city, Krasner was the last person anybody expected to be elected to public office. Series creators Ted Passon, Yoni Brook, and Nicole Salazar kick-off “Philly D.A.” as the glow from his momentous and surprising landslide victory in 2017 fades, and Krasner and his team take over the six floors that comprise of the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office to start their tenure. He wastes little time in making his presence known and pushing forward a progressive agenda, firing 31 prosecutors, and solidifying his intention to act on the behalf of the numerous grassroots and activist community organizations that swept him into office. Among his first mandates is ending criminal charges for marijuana possession, and ordering his prosecutors to stop recommending cash bail for misdemeanor and non-violent crimes. For Krasner’s advocates, this is exactly what they voted for and a reason to celebrate. However, the resounding wall of silence that greets Krasner when he announces the policies to the city’s Criminal Justice Advisory Board one week before it goes public, makes it clear he does not have many friends in the corridors of City Hall. To best understand the calcified politics Krasner finds himself up against, you needn’t look any further than the statue of Frank Rizzo, the city’s only monument to a former mayor, whose brutal and racist reign established the tenor of political and police power that Philadelphia would follow for decades to come.
Granted remarkable access, the filmmakers are as interested in documenting Krasner’s early days in power, as they are exploring the ramifications and complexities of pushing a radical agenda through a system with deeply entrenched ways of doing things. “Philly D.A.” has an easy villain in John McNesby, the President of Philadephia’s Fraternal Order of Police who opposes Krasner’s policies, and does not brook even a whiff of criticism of his officers. Naturally, his friction with Krasner intensifies as the attorney discovers what he describes as a “coverup” during the previous D.A.’s administration, that saw the office keep a secret “Do Not Call” list of police officers, whose professional and personal conduct was so questionable, they could not be relied on as witnesses. But more intriguing than the predictably oppositional positions between Krasner and McNesby are how people inside the D.A.’s office can wind up on different sides of trying to rehabilitate a flawed system. And thankfully “Philly D.A.” spends an equal amount of time investigating those dichotomies.
One of the most fascinating conflicts to emerge in the early stages of “Philly D.A” opens up between Lisa Harvey, a veteran of the Juvenile Court Unit in the district attorney’s office, and Bob Listenbee, former Administrator of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention in the Obama Administration, who joins Krasner’s team as the First Assitant District Attorney. Listenbee immediately demands a fundamental change in how juvenile cases are handled, urging prosecutors to do whatever they can to lower the number of children being sent into placement facilities. Harvey chafes at the directive, unwilling to see past the letter of the law in the charges that are brought against juveniles that factor into how their cases are handled. The differences between these colleagues come from perspectives that are both valid. Movingly, Listenbee nearly comes to tears describing the people he’s met, whose lives were forever changed by entering the juvenile system, denying them opportunities at furthering their education, and often setting them up for an endless cycle in the prison system as adults. Harvey, however, has spent years standing beside victims in court, and her resistance comes from not wanting to fail them as they seek justice by minimizing the crimes against them. This tangle, rooted in both Listenbee and Harvey taking different, but very personal and human viewpoints, is the unspoken challenge of reform. How do you disrupt the system to make it more equitable, without making anyone feel like they’ve been left behind or unheard?
There are no easy answers, only difficult choices, and “Philly D.A.” is at its most powerful when it reckons with the passion and discord in that space. Another compelling viewpoint, that hopefully gets more airtime in future episodes, is that of Ben Waxman, the Spokesperson and Director of Communications for Krasner’s office. Given the unenviable task of managing one big game-changing Krasner announcement after another, the glimpses of him working on packaging these messages and massaging the responses offer a unique window into the kind of political gamesmanship that even the most radical politician has to endure. It’s a reminder that once you’re past the slogans of a campaign, even someone like Krasner needs a bit of marketing to make the medicine go down.
Collecting insights from attorneys, judges, journalists, activists, police officers, and more, “Philly D.A.” resonates from its rich tapestry of perspectives. From the outset, the series makes clear it will not be a hagiography of Krasner, and frankly, he wouldn’t want it that way either. The timeliness of the program goes beyond the fact that Krasner is still in office, and that he represents an element of the growing “progressive prosecutive movement” that is seeing similarly minded attorneys being voted into office across the country. Passon, Brook, and Salazar promise not just the portrait of an unlikely hero, but a gripping study of the rippling fabric of a changing city as it shakes out the past in front of our eyes. How it eventually settles, only time will tell. [B]
“Philly D.A.” will air this spring on PBS.